Archive for the ‘My takeaway’ Category

Michael’s take: High court to hear GPS privacy case?

Friday, April 15th, 2011

This entry is by Michael Fertik, the founder of

In an interesting development, the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court of the United States to hear a case regarding GPS tracking devices and privacy.  The case started when the police secretly placed a GPS tracking device on Atoine Jonas’s car, and used the information to help prove that he was dealing cocaine.  An intermediate court threw the conviction out, but the Obama administration would like the Supreme Court to reinstate it.

There are very interesting Fourth Amendment issues in this case.  But to me, the wider implications are far more important than just the police hiding tracking devices on cars.

GPS data is becoming very common for everyday people.  Most “smart” phones (like the Android, iPhone and BlackBerry series) contain GPS systems.  And lots of applications use this data in interesting ways: Yelp’s mobile application can show you nearby restaurants based on your GPS coordinates.  But some applications (like games) also use your GPS data to target advertising.  And some applications (like FourSquare) use it to broadcast your location to the world.  The result is that there is a huge amount of movement tracking data being assembled about everyday people.  If there is another Epsilon data breach, it could result in your movements being displayed to the world.  If you’ve ever been anywhere private (a doctor’s office, a Planned Parenthood office, a bar, a job interview when you’re already employed, etc) it could be used against you.  The same if burglars know you aren’t home at certain hours of the day (or that you are alone in a dark parking lot every night).  We need to think carefully about what kind of protection is given to these GPS databases—not just against mis-use by law enforcement, but also how they are protected against hackers and others.

My takeaway: I don’t think I have anything to hide.  But I still don’t want the world to be able to know where I am every moment.  It’s a security and privacy threat, and one that not enough people are thinking about in the era of smart phones and data breaches.  Maybe we need to consider GPS privacy before it’s too late?

– Michael Fertik (follow me on Twitter)

The views expressed here are those of the author and not those of his clients, employers, investors or anybody else.

M. Fertik: Department of Education hires first Chief Privacy Officer

Friday, April 15th, 2011

This post was written by Michael Fertik, CEO and founder of and co-author of Wild West 2.0: How to Protect Your Online Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier.

Here’s some possible good news about privacy for students.  The U.S. Department of Education just hired its first Chief Privacy Officer and proposed new data privacy rules to protect student education records.  The Department is basing its rules on “FERPA,” a 1974 law designed to protect education records from a much less digital era.

More awareness and caution around privacy is always a good thing.  I suspect the Department of Education could improve privacy with some good rules.

But the Department of Education is just one part of the government, and it only has power to issue rules relating to student records.  These new privacy rules are a step in the right direction for awareness, but we need comprehensive privacy reform rather than more piecemeal steps.  We need a truly comprehensive system of privacy protections, rather than just more temporary solutions and bandages.  Until we recognize that individuals have important rights in their own private information, we’ll be forced to rely on these incomplete solutions.

My takeaway: I’m glad the Department of Education is thinking about privacy.  But these new rules are just a reminder that our current system of privacy protection is incomplete and relies on piecemeal regulation in each different industry.  We can do better.

– Michael Fertik

The views expressed here are those of the author and not those of his clients, employers, investors or anybody else.

Michael Fertik: San Francisco rethinks nightclub privacy

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

This is a post by Michael Fertik, co-author of Wild West 2.0 and CEO and founder of

Here’s one.  In an attempt to crack down on underage drinking and drunk violence in San Francisco (if you’ve ever been to North Beach on a weekend evening, you’ve probably seen one or both happen), the San Francisco Entertainment Commission (a city governmental agency that most people have never heard of) proposed new rules for nightclubs that would require large clubs to take high-resolution video of customers as they enter, and also keep a digital scan of each customer’s driver’s license.  Each club would have to store the videos and license scans for at least 15 days.

Predictably enough, the usual list of privacy organizations spoke out: the EFF, IP Justice, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Beat the Chip, and a list of other groups all raised the obvious privacy problems of a city requiring digital records of everyone who enters a nightclub.

The significance of civil rights and privacy in San Francisco was not lost on those who commented; it seems odd that San Francisco of all places would

The rules are being delayed for further study.

My takeaway: of course there was a privacy outrage… but why did it take so long?  Shouldn’t the Entertainment Commission have thought about the privacy concerns before proposing these rules?  What does it say about omnipresent digital surveillance?

– Michael Fertik

The views expressed here are those of the author alone and not those of his employers, clients, or any other person.

Michael Fertik: Columbia privacy study reveals Facebook truths

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

This is a post by Michael Fertik, co-author of Wild West 2.0 and CEO and founder of

It should come as no surprise, but a new study from Columbia University shows that even college students have trouble setting and understanding their privacy on sites like Facebook.  The authors of the study asked 65 students at Columbia to describe how much information they wanted to share on Facebook, based on the type of information.  For example, they asked students how much information about “drinking” they wanted to share with the world.  Then, the researchers logged into Facebook and examined how much information was available.  They found that 100% (65 of 65) of students shared too much or too little information compared to what students said they wanted to share.  For example, a student’s profile would be counted as sharing too much if the student said he wanted no information about “drinking” to be available, but a status update said he was “drunk” or “hammered” or any other synonym for drinking.

It is hardly news that Facebook privacy settings are difficult to control.  But it is something new entirely when 65 of 65 students revealed different information than they intended.

Perhaps most importantly, this study recognizes that Facebook privacy settings don’t correspond with how we really view the world.  The students in this study wanted to reveal (or hide) information based on the subject and implications of the information: whether it shows them as drinking, studying, relaxing, or interacting.  But Facebook’s current privacy controls are based on the method of transmission: all photos, or all status updates.  A better privacy model would allow users to display all information about studying to the world, but show information about partying only to friends. 

My takeaway: If  Ivy League college students can’t set their Facebook privacy controls properly, what hope is there for the rest of us?

– Michael Fertik

The views expressed here are those of the author alone and not those of his employers, clients, or any other person.